Guest Post – University of Glasgow Library borrowing registers, beyond the borrowing: what additional insights can they provide?

by Robert MacLean, Assistant Librarian in Archives and Special Collections, University of Glasgow

Archives and Special Collections (ASC) at the University of Glasgow holds the institution’s historical library records, including old catalogues, library committee minutes, acquisition ledgers and the registers recording when books were borrowed and by whom. Until recently these have been rather overlooked by most researchers (except ASC staff trawling through them for specific enquiries into, say, how the library was run in the past, or to try to determine when a particular book might have been acquired)[1].

However, the recent Eighteenth-century borrowing from the University of Glasgow project has started to change that. The team selected the three earliest surviving student borrowing registers (covering March 1757 to January 1771) and created a fantastic searchable and browsable resource allowing the user to identify, amongst other things, the most popular authors and works borrowed during the period. Three eighteenth-century registers covering the professors’ borrowing are now being similarly treated as part of the much bigger corpus of ‘Books and Borrowing’.

The new student resource has been really helpful to ASC staff. Eighteenth-century student records are sporadic and incomplete (not everything was systematically collected then, as it is now) meaning it can be difficult to say with certainty who studied at Glasgow, when, and which classes they took.[2] Until the mid-nineteenth century, students weren’t required to matriculate, and many chose not to graduate. If necessary for future employment, a student could simply obtain a certificate directly from an individual professor confirming they had studied. So, while a student may have attended the University of Glasgow in this period, locating a paper trail proving it can be difficult. Often, we have to resort to a patchwork of incomplete and fragmentary records (e.g. surviving class rolls and prize lists) in attempting to confirm attendance.

The Eighteenth-century borrowing from the University of Glasgow resource now offers another piece of the jigsaw puzzle, permitting the identification of additional un-matriculated and non-graduating students, provided they borrowed books from the library. This will allow for the identification of more alumni and will quickly allow us to confirm the classes in which they were enrolled, the names of their professors, and will point the location of an autograph (since entries in these early registers were signed by the students). The titles of books students borrowed adds welcome insight into the students themselves – their lives and interests – not found elsewhere in the archival record. And given many of these books still survive on the library shelves, this new data offers a direct and tangible link back to the life of an enquirer’s ancestor who may have studied here hundreds of years ago: “this is the very copy of Herodotus which your great great great great great grandfather borrowed in 1757”.

To date only the six earliest surviving registers have been processed and analysed for the borrowing project research. We hold many more borrowing registers (19 for the first half of the nineteenth century alone), covering student and staff borrowing for the university library and class libraries. Some of these have been (or are being) used by researchers already; however, none has yet been fully and systematically transcribed and treated as we have seen for the eighteenth-century projects. To indicate the sort of research potential they might offer, here are just a few research projects which have looked at some of the early-nineteenth century registers so far:

English Literature (MLitt) student Rachael Tarrant examined a student-annotated copy of Wordsworth’s ‘The Excursion’[3] held in our collections for her dissertation. She compellingly demonstrated similarities between how Wordsworth was reviewed in contemporary critical periodicals and the comments students penned in the margins. The early nineteenth-century borrowing registers were then used to confirm a pattern of students borrowing periodical literature alongside other types of literature. Had the data in the registers been fully processed and searchable in an online database, it would certainly have been easier for Rachael to locate specific examples of the practice in connection with ‘The Excursion’ itself.

I’ve recently relied on the borrowing registers of the 1820s to show high levels of professorial borrowing of sheet music for the first time in that decade.[4] That absence of similar borrowing earlier than this, I contend, is likely down to a lack of availability – with significant quantities of sheet music likely only beginning to arrive via legal deposit around 1820. The same uptick in sheet music borrowing does not, prima facie, occur in the student borrowing record of the same period. Might this mean students were not permitted to borrow sheet music? Without a more systematic treatment and analysis of the data, it is difficult to say.

Some of the most interesting ongoing research on the early-nineteenth century borrowing records is connected with James McCune Smith, the first known African American to graduate in medicine.[5] Denied entry to American colleges due to his race, he was accepted for study at the University of Glasgow.  He attended from 1832 to 1837 earning three university degrees: a Bachelor of Arts (1835), a Master of Arts (1836) and his Medical Doctorate (1837).

Matthew Daniel Eddy has used McCune Smith’s recently identified library borrowing records (for the medical class library as well as the university library) to demonstrate his familiarity with the vital statistics methods he subsequently used to expose abuses at Glasgow Lock Hospital. Amy Cools has also been working with the same material. While her research is ongoing, she has noted that the borrowing records offer the address of the lodging house at which McCune Smith stayed in Glasgow – previously unknown biographical information which might open up new research avenues into his Glasgow networks and associates.

The eighteenth-century borrowing projects have provided a fascinating model of what is possible with this category of record. With so much more borrowing data still available to be considered, who knows what more might be discovered with similar treatment.

Library Records 87, “Register of loans, College Medical Library, University of Glasgow, November 1827 to November 1842.” [p. 283]. Features some of James McCune Smith’s recorded borrowings.
[1] Currently only a portion of our Library records have been entered into our online search: and The increased research interest may see this change.

[2] For more see:

[3] Rachael Tarrant (2019) “An Arena for Experimental Literary Criticism: early-Nineteenth-Century Glasgow University Students’ Ready Raillery and Biting Exchange in the Margins of Wordsworth’s 1814 The Excursion”. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Letters in Romantic Worlds in the School of Critical Studies, University of Glasgow. The focus of the dissertation is Sp Coll b.4.32:

[4] Robert MacLean (2019) “Legal Deposit Music at University of Glasgow Library, 1710—1836” Brio 56 (2), pp. 31-37.

[5] The University has recently celebrated his contribution through naming the newly built Learning Hub after him. See more here: